Wacky char­ac­ters fall flat on the page

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ARTS & LIFE -

FIRST off, this comic novel is not about the Karen Car­pen­ter. As the first-per­son nar­ra­tor im­me­di­ately points out, her par­ents made the thought­less mis­take of nam­ing her af­ter a now-dead ’70s singing star.

And that was just the start of our Karen’s trou­bles.

Try­ing hard — usu­ally too hard — to be a mad­cap romp, this sec­ond novel from Jonathan Har­vey ( All She Wants) is be­ing mar­keted as Bri­tish chick lit.

Har­vey is not him­self a chick, but the Liver­pool-bred writer is a fre­quent scripter for the long-run­ning English soap Coronation Street, which makes him a dab hand at writ­ing cheeky di­a­logue for strong fe­male char­ac­ters. Har­vey is also an award-win­ning play­wright ( Beau­ti­ful Thing, Cor­rie!, the Pet Shop Boys mu­si­cal Closer to Heaven).

Un­for­tu­nately, his dra­matic skills don’t al­ways trans­late to the novel form. Har­vey pulls off lots of funny one-liners in Con­fu­sion, but he has a harder time de­vel­op­ing sus­tained comic sit­u­a­tions.

The char­ac­ters, while re­lent­lessly colour­ful in their broad out­lines, re­main pretty flat on the page.

Karen is a teacher at an East Lon­don com­pre­hen­sive that’s a bit rough round the edges. When her stu­dents are im­pressed with her, they say things like, “Miss, is you, like, psy­chic ’n’ shizz?” She is cur­rently try­ing to re­cover from the sud­den de­par­ture of Michael, her boyfriend of 20 years, whose only ex­pla­na­tion was a note left on the ket­tle.

Karen sol­diers on with the du­bi­ous help of her mother (wacky and self-dra­ma­tiz­ing), her les­bian friend Mered­ith (wacky and Kate Winslet-lov­ing), and her depart­ment head, Mungo (wacky and san­dal­sand-socks-wear­ing).

She is cheered up con­sid­er­ably when she meets Kevin, a twinkly-eyed Ir­ish dream­boat whose only draw­back as a boyfriend is that his wife has just died of can­cer that week.

Karen some­how finds her­self be­ing all flirty with him when he’s at the su­per­mar­ket pick­ing out food for the up­com­ing wake, an oc­ca­sion that Karen keeps think­ing of as a first date. Like sev­eral scenes in the book, this one skews more icky than funny.

Mean­while, the fact that Karen has ab­so­lutely no in­ter­est in find­ing out where Michael has gone or why starts to feel less like a plau­si­ble emo­tional re­ac­tion and more like a pained plot de­vice brought in to keep ev­ery­one run­ning in cir­cles.

And when we come to the Big Plot Twist — and re­ally, this is the kind of what-the­heck about-face that can only be ren­dered with cap­i­tal let­ters — Har­vey sud­denly de­mands heart-tug­ging emo­tion that doesn’t feel earned.

The Con­fu­sion of Karen Car­pen­ter is, thank­fully, not ob­sessed with shop­ping and de­signer cloth­ing, as its Amer­i­can chick-lit cousins are. Karen is strug­gling just to pay the mort­gage on a lit­tle house that’s not even in the good part of East Ham. (“Is there a good part of East Ham?” Karen won­ders.)

But Karen falls into cross-cul­tural chick­lit clichés by be­ing chron­i­cally hap­less and hope­less, whether she’s en­dur­ing a Brazil­ian bikini wax gone grotesquely wrong or talk­ing about the Ir­ish Repub­li­can Army as “one of those po­lit­i­cal thinga­ma­jigs.”

Brid­get Jones, who’s the English god­mother of the dith­ery fe­male-fic­tion hero­ine, man­aged to make clue­less­ness com­i­cally charm­ing. Karen Car­pen­ter is more of­ten vex­ing, es­pe­cially be­cause she tends to go on and on and on about things.

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